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Alex Spillius: Republicans have long way to go before they can focus on Obama

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is joined by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (R) at a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire January 4, 2012, one day after Romney won the Iowa caucus. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is joined by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (R) at a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire January 4, 2012, one day after Romney won the Iowa caucus. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is joined by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (R) at a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire January 4, 2012, one day after Romney won the Iowa caucus. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

ON January 3, 2008, at the start of the Democratic Party contest to choose a candidate for the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won a clear victory in the Iowa caucuses that propelled him towards the White House.

Four years on from that historic result and it appeared yesterday that the president had triumphed once more from a vote in the Midwestern state -- this time without even having to enter the contest.

For while Mitt Romney was undoubtedly relieved at his narrow victory and Rick Santorum celebrated a remarkable turnaround that almost saw him come from nowhere to win, it was Mr Obama who appeared to have gained the most from a night when Republican voters failed to settle on a clear front-runner to challenge him for the presidency.

Given the three-way division in Republican ranks between the secular centre-right, evangelicals and libertarians, who supported Mr Romney, Mr Santorum and Ron Paul respectively in near equal numbers, Mr Obama's strategists will take comfort that Iowa again shows the path to victory.

The lack of a strong Republican candidate is likely to drag out the contest and weaken the eventual winner. Mr Romney will probably grind his way towards the nomination but he will not be a popular choice, just as Senator John McCain was a begrudging selection in 2008. That will mean a lack of enthusiasm among the party faithful -- despite their antipathy for the current administration -- that could depress the Republican vote in November.

Mr Obama's advisers also quickly noted that Mr Romney won only 13pc of voters earning less than $50,000 (€39,000) a year -- the white middle and lower middle class who will be crucial in swing states such as Ohio and who are prone to be suspicious of a son of privilege with a background in private equity.

Mr Romney also lost to Dr Paul, a maverick Texas congressman, by four to one among independent voters, a key group that Mr Obama hopes to win back.

Other leading Democrats could scarcely contain their glee at Mr Santorum's strong showing, suggesting that a relatively obscure senator best known among liberals for equating homosexuality with bestiality was a laughable prospect as an opponent for Mr Obama.

"I would have never guessed Rick Santorum would be so happy about two men being tied up together," wrote Paul Begala, once a senior adviser to Bill Clinton, on the 'Daily Beast' website.

"You gotta love a party in which Mitt Romney can do no better than virtually tie with the guy who compared gays to 'man on dog' sex and thinks contraception is evil."

Despite the gloating of Democrats, Mr Romney will be happy with a victory in what is, with the exception of South Carolina, the most conservative state in the early battles, and one not well disposed to a north-eastern moderate.

But nagging doubts remain for the former Massachusetts governor. Iowa voters had four years to know him better since he last competed in the state, but his percentage of the vote was exactly the same as when he lost to Mike Huckabee in 2008.

His campaign will be anxious about his ability to expand his share of the vote above that 25pc mark anywhere apart from New Hampshire, which neighbours his home state and where he owns a holiday home, and Michigan, where his father was once governor.

Mr Obama will furthermore have close to $1bn (€773m) in his war chest and rhetorical skills that, judging by Mr Romney's and Mr Santorum's efforts so far, will be the envy of his Republican opponent.

Given the parlous state of the economy, the deep gloom about America's prospects and Mr Obama's leadership failings, the battle for the White House will be close. Mr Romney is comfortably the Republicans' best hope because of his potential appeal to the middle ground, but results in Iowa did nothing to upset the current betting that the president will finish a narrow winner. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent